Migrants on the Move

Despite the increased responsibilities and reduced free time resulting from a new academic year, I’ve managed to make good use of my breaks from lesson planning in the initial half of September. When I checked the weather projections at the end of my first week back, I saw that the winds were favorable for some serious migration. The latest BirdCast report predicted “heavy and locally very heavy” flights of birds on Friday and Saturday nights. I made sure that my work for the next few days was squared away so I could get out into the field bright and early.

The overnight base reflectivity radar revealed huge numbers of birds taking off all over the continent, and one of the hotspots was on track to land on Long Island in the morning. When I awoke before sunrise, I saw that the latest images showed a concentration of birds descending into Suffolk county. I chose to start my day at Robert Moses in the hopes of intercepting the migrants during their dawn flight down the coast. Fire Island’s usual suspects came out to greet me once I arrived: loafing parking lot gulls, groups of grazing deer, and a young Red Fox that darted across my path, pausing briefly to look back from the safety of cover before continuing deeper into the brush.

As expected, the numbers and diversity of birds moving west down the shoreline were fantastic. Warblers continually streamed past throughout the morning, with some individuals barely missing my head as the dove into the shrubs behind me. I tallied several hundred individuals from my vantage point, no doubt a small sample of the event’s overall magnitude. The majority of the birds I was able to identify were American Redstarts and Black-and-white Warblers, with plenty of Northern Waterthrushes, Magnolia Warblers, and Common Yellowthroats rounding out the ranks. I recorded small numbers of 6 additional species, but I have no doubts that there were many more among the masses. Non-warblers included an abundance of Cedar Waxwings, swarms of swallows, a handful of vireos and orioles, and regular appearances by Bobolinks. Merlins and kestrels patrolled the edge of the vegetation, keeping the smaller birds on alert. The highlights of my vigil were a quartet of local rarities: Red-headed Woodpecker, Dickcissel, Lark Sparrow, and Western Kingbird. All of these species are scarce but expected vagrants in our area during fall migration, and large flights offer the best odds of finding them. Encountering any of these visitors would be a high point of a day’s birding. Finding all 4 in the space of a few hours was a delight.

Wind direction and speed remained favorable well beyond nightfall, and Sunday morning found me back on the hunt at Jones Beach. There clearly weren’t as many birds passing overhead in transit, but the vegetation came to life as the sunlight began to warm the area. I found an array of warblers fluttering through the hedgerow and the foliage along the edge of the fisherman’s road, along with a Scarlet Tanager and a mystery flycatcher.

Empidonax flycatchers are notoriously difficult to identify by appearance alone. Autumnal wanderings cause many species to overlap in range, and they are not nearly as noisy as the hormonal spring migrants and breeders. Photo analysis revealed that my nondescript bird was either an Alder or a Willow Flycatcher, but without hearing any vocalizations it is all but impossible to separate these former conspecifics in the field. However, there was no mistaking the identity of a Western Kingbird that sallied out in front of me to nab a passing insect.

Shortly after the kingbird disappeared, I met up with Brendan and his friend Jacob, a Colorado native and current Chicago resident who was visiting NYC. We scanned through the hordes of shorebirds assembled on the sandbar and set about exploring the median, our guest’s state list growing by the minute. We were treated to up close and personal encounters with several Cape May Warblers, a fantastic eye-level photo opp for a species that typically forages in the treetops. Even in their duller autumn garb, these birds are probably my favorite warblers. A dapper male discovered on a high school retreat was the first uncommon member of the parulid family that I found and IDed on my own, so I’ve always held a soft spot for Setophaga tigrina. I have been fortunate enough to hear them singing on their boreal forest breeding grounds, watch them sip nectar at flowering trees in the Caribbean, and observe their passage at unforgettable migration hotspots everywhere in between. The countless fond memories that become associated with the birds we encounter are, in my opinion, the most rewarding aspect of birding.

Keeping an eye on the skies is critical during fall migration, and we were lucky enough to spot a trio of Common Nighthawks and a Caspian Tern. We checked a couple of the state park’s parking lots on our way out, turning up a resting Lesser Black-backed Gull, some lingering Boat-tailed Grackles, and a plunge-diving flock of Royal Terns. We briefly stopped by Hempstead Lake, but found the forested trails mostly quiet. Jacob, Brendan, and I parted ways, content with the successes of our searching.

Even though the conditions for night flights were far less promising on Monday, I still had bird-based plans in Manhattan. The annual Tribute in Light projected at the World Trade Center is more than a touching and powerful homage to the tragedy that struck on this site. The towering beacons illuminate the night sky, drawing in migrating birds from miles around. Photopollution can confound the travels of winged wanderers under the best of circumstances, and these massive, radiant pillars have proven to be a nigh irresistible trap. Those responsible for operating the lights are sensitive to the potential dangers the beams present to wildlife, and NYC Audubon helps to monitor the luminous columns for ensnared migrants. Many of my friends have helped to survey the Tribute over the years, recording numbers and diversity for hours on end. When enough birds are detected circling the area, volunteers notify the staff and the lights are temporarily shut off to allow the weary travelers to continue on. Lots of folks come together to make this event run smoothly, and as a New Yorker and a wildlife lover I am grateful for that.

I have never gotten a good look at the Tribute in Light, and the significance of the display along with the spectacle of nocturnal migrants convinced me to make a trip. I met up with Jacob and we spent about an hour watching from a few blocks away. At such a distance, the birds looked more like insects or twinkling stars. Species identification was impossible, but we could still make out hundreds of individuals swirling in and out of view, visible all the way to the top of the columns. The solemn gravity of the situation, combined with the impressive numbers of equally impressive creatures, made for an awe-inspiring sight. To me, the scene served as a symbol of tenacity and hope. Migrating birds and communities of humans both face our fair share of obstacles, though the natures of those difficulties are worlds apart. Every living creature has its own tale of challenges and successes, persevering despite the struggles. Through hardship and adversity, time and time again, life finds a way.

Year List Update, September 11 – 369 Species (+ Lark Sparrow, Caspian Tern)

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Feels Like Fall

For the first time in several months, I’m writing this blog post from the train on my morning commute. A new school year has begun, but this is the first academic cycle where I’ll be a full time teacher without taking any classes of my own. It’s always sad to say goodbye to summer. That being said, I’ve had a pretty great run of fun and adventures since the end of June. When I stepped off the boat after our successful pelagic trip last Sunday, I knew that I had one last week to fill with excitement before returning to work. I did my best to make the most of these last 7 days, and I succeeded.

A few opportunities for small-scale twitches presented themselves over the week. When a Red-necked Phalarope was reported at the Jones Beach ponds on Tuesday, Miriam and I made chase despite the rainy, chilly conditions. We fought the wind and wet valiantly, and we were rewarded with a look at yet another of the “must-see” birds Miriam has tabbed in her field guide. Other additions to her life list included Blue-winged Teal and Lesser Black-backed Gull, a species that is often encountered loafing in parking lot flocks along the coast at this time of year. Thursday’s quarry was an Olive-sided Flycatcher with a bonus Worm-eating Warbler at Hempstead Lake, and we managed to find both targets without much trouble. Another welcome surprise was a young Cooper’s Hawk appeared at close range while trying to avoid mobbing songbirds. The increasingly diverse array of Neotropical migrants in the forest helped to amp up our excitement for fall and ease the transition out of summer vacation.

I made a Saturday morning solo outing to Jones, where I discovered that the most abundant winged travelers were dragonflies rather than birds. Scores of the insects were circling through the area, and as I walked through the vegetation I found myself flushing a dozen or more from each plant I passed. I didn’t notice any birds taking advantage of the bounty, but I did find a Baltimore Oriole hungrily pecking at a cicada it had secured for breakfast. I picked up a Least Flycatcher for the first time in a while, along with a handful of other transit species like swallows, warblers, and Bobolinks.

I stopped by Hempstead Lake again on the way home. Overall avian activity was fairy low, highlighted by a quiet stream side stakeout where I observed several species bathing. Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Northern Waterthrush, and Canada, Black-and-white, and Magnolia Warblers were all washing themselves in the water. This peaceful pause along the edge of the creek was a restful, relaxing chance to slow down and enjoy nature.

Even though Miriam didn’t join me for my morning expedition, we still ended up doing some unexpected birding later in the day. On our way into Brooklyn to meet up with Edem and Kelsey, we were treated to a close encounter with a huge Common Raven at the Valley Stream westbound ramp for the Southern State Parkway. Once we reached our destination, we decided to explore our surroundings while we waited for our friends to join us. McCarren Park, a tiny greenspace in the heart of Williamsburg, turned out to be a fantastic migrant trap. Even without the aid of binoculars, we managed to locate a surprising variety of warblers. More than half a dozen Magnolias were observed flitting about in the low-hanging branches, joined by several American Redstarts, a Northern Parula, a Tennessee, a Black-and-white, and a drab female Cape May. Additional birds were glimpsed fluttering in the treetops, making us wish we had our optics on hand. Once our crew arrived, we enjoyed an awesome night out full of food, drink, and merriment. It was a suitable and much-needed last hurrah before returning to school.

Sunday morning found me surveying the sod farms of Riverhead in search of visiting “grasspipers.” In 2016, I had incredible luck when I visited this region to look for its specialty shorebirds. This year’s effort required a bit more work. The weather was gray, dreary, and intermittently drizzly throughout the morning. When I first arrived at Doctor’s Path, a traditional spot for birding, it hosted only a small group of Semipalmated Plovers. I checked the fields at Osborne Avenue and found them totally birdless. Continuing on to Hulse Landing Road, a recent hub of activity, I was met by a flock of Killdeer. There was no sign of my targets, but a unusual cry from overhead seized my attention. I immediately recognized the three note call as the voice of the unusual Upland Sandpiper. The Uppie was too high up and poorly lit for photos, but I managed to get a recording as it flew eastward. Seeing one of those weirdos always makes me happy.

After a few more circuits between the different sod farms, I finally located a distant pair of Buff-breasted Sandpipers at Doctor’s Path with a little advice from Tripper, who’d made the journey to Riverhead a few days prior. I called back the other birders who I’d seen earlier, including Menachem and the Fuestels, so they could get a look at the Buffies as well. I thought that I briefly glimpsed a Baird’s Sandpiper among the shorebird flocks, but I never managed to refind it and there were several confusingly brownish Semipalmated Sandpipers out there working the grass. I once again received a gift from above, however, when the quavering flight call of an American Golden-Plover echoed across the firmament. A pair of Peregrine Falcons tussling in the plowed dirt north of our location was a surprise, albeit an unpleasant one for the wary shorebirds. The Buff-breasts and many of the other species made themselves scarce when the predators arrived. Declaring my trip a success, I stopped around the corner at Briermere Farms to pick up some pie before returning home.

I slept in on Labor Day, but I had a few errands to run before the family’s evening grill-and-chill session. On my way to my grandpa’s to deliver some pie, I elected to make a detour to add a new bird to my Nassau County list. Brendan recently verified reports that a family of Wild Turkeys was hanging out on the otherwise ordinary Aerial Way in Syosset. I couldn’t resist stopping by to see the birds myself, and they did not disappoint. I first noticed a hen with several mostly-grown youngsters scratching for food along a wooded fenceline. When I turned my car around to find a better vantage point, I stumbled upon two burly toms resting in the shade of a truck across the street.

I’ve seen plenty of turkeys in my day, both on and off the table. Even though the beefed-up barnyard variety isn’t especially impressive, I generally have a lot of fun when I encounter their forest-dwelling cousins. Watching these giant fowl go about their business always makes me feel like I’m catching a glimpse back through the fog of time. The Wild Turkey is downright prehistoric in appearance and action, and its intricate, iridescent plumage clashes marvelously with its shriveled countenance. The incongruity of seeing these dinosaurian creatures casually loafing in an asphalt parking lot was equally delightful. The turkeys didn’t seem to mind my unspoken request for a photo shoot, as the poults kept foraging and the adult males both laid down to rest while my shutter clicked away. Seeing these bizarre animals so close to home was a real pleasure.

All good things must come to an end, and the summer of 2017 was chock full of good things. As I stand at the starting line for yet another school year, I can find no cause for complaint as I reflect on the adventures of the past few months. I can only hope that the rest of the year is equally rewarding and eventful!

Year List Update, September 4 – 367 Species (+ Blue-winged Teal, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Tennessee Warbler, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, American Golden-Plover)

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Going Off the Deep End

I have been eagerly anticipating the August overnight trip to the continental shelf with See Life Paulagics since I signed up at the end of the January expedition. The final few days of waiting turned out to be a bit of an emotional roller coaster, starting on Friday morning when I awakened to a text from Brendan asking how “devastated” I would be if the boat didn’t sail. Knowing this cryptic message could only mean one thing, I braced myself as I checked the marine forecast at the Hudson Canyon. Surprise, surprise: gale force winds and seas of up to 16 feet were predicted for Sunday night into Monday. Brendan had chosen the right word for my reaction.

We discussed whether or not the trip would be rescheduled, but with Labor Day coming the next week I was concerned that the Brooklyn VI would be otherwise spoken for. After several hours of feeling sorry for myself, I got word from Mike that an email had been sent out asking who would be free if the trip moved up a day to get ahead of the weather. For some cosmically comical reason, the missive never showed up in my inbox despite my address being on the mailing list. No matter! I reached out to the trip coordinators to let them know that I was still a “yes.” Although some planned participants had to drop out due to the date change, there were plenty of eager folks on the waiting list ready to replace them. The trip was back on! I packed my things and headed into the city to meet Brendan and Anthony, who was kind enough to drive us to the docks in Brooklyn. We boarded the Brooklyn VI after sunset and set sail for the continental shelf. After catching up with Ben, Jay, and my other friends, I laid down for the night to sleep under the stars.

I’m not sure how much proper, REM sleep I got, but the rocking of the boat and the breeze off the ocean made my night on the top deck exceedingly pleasant even when lay awake. Several hours in, we hit an especially large wave which sprayed a few drops of seawater across my exposed face. I smiled, starting to drift off once more. Then it happened again. And again. Eventually the drops became a full plume of salt and mist, and every wave sent a new one washing over my sleeping bag. Our speed and angle of travel combined with the direction of the wind and water to create ideal conditions for soaking the upper level of the ship. I glanced over at the glowing phone of a fellow dampened passenger. 4 AM, close enough to sunrise that it wasn’t worth trying to sleep anymore. I pulled myself together and moved my gear to the shelter of the cabin, relocating to the leeward lower deck to wait for dawn and our inevitable slowdown.

When we finally came to a stop, the crew began to toss out chum in an effort to get a slick going before first light. Brendan pointed out a few storm-petrels fluttering through the gloom, but soon the boat lurched into motion again. Paul informed us that the sea surface temperature wasn’t as high as he was hoping for, so we headed out into the depths beyond the edge of the shelf in search of warmer water. Apparently it’s been an unusual year in our region as far as water temperature and food distribution go, and some of us began to grow concerned about our odds for successful birding. We eventually found a suitable pocket of heat about 140 miles offshore, and the chum started flying just as day began to break over the eastern horizon.

For the first few minutes after we set up shop, I was worried that we had started too late. There were no birds anywhere to be seen, and all the talk of poor conditions this summer made me nervous. We bobbed up and down as the breeze blew strongly, carrying the pungent odor of the oil and meat floating behind our boat. Right on cue, the storm-petrels began to arrive from downwind. Their powerful senses of smell led them right to the buffet we’d provided, and we watched as the tiny shadows floated over to pick their breakfast from the chum slick. The first to arrive were Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, an abundant and familiar species that is easily found just off the coast.

Every bird that passed was inspected thoroughly by the birders aboard the Brooklyn VI. Storm-Petrels are quick flyers and very similar to one another at first glance. We took great care to inspect the flock for Leach’s and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels, but both species turned out to be present in some numbers. I became acquainted with Leach’s Storm-Petrels during my time in Maine. The long-winged, fork-tailed birds bred on Eastern Egg Rock, and I was able to hear their chuckling, purring cries when they came to their burrows on dark nights. The boldness of the wing stripes and the shape of the white rump patch are some of the best ways to distinguish the Leach’s from the Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, my first lifer of the trip. Bandies also have a squarer, less notched tail and a more direct flight pattern compared to the erratic, nighthawk-like trajectory of the Leach’s. Although individuals came and went as they ate their fill, all three birds were visible at the chum slick throughout most of the day.

Early in the morning, I was watching a pair of Band-rumps approach the ship from the starboard stern. When I lowered my binoculars and prepared to point them out, I noticed a small, pale form bouncing along the waves towards us. My brain shorted out, my words got stuck in my mouth, and time seemed to stall as I heard the bird’s name shouted from all corners of the vessel: WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL!

This creature was the primary reason I’d signed up for the August Paulagic, my number one target species on this voyage. The White-face is one of the most sought-after rarities in North America, a bucket list bird of the highest order, and it looks and behaves very differently from most of its relatives. Its method of flying is utterly unique, holding its wings out stiffly as it cruises just above the surface and pushes off the water with long legs. Birders in the United States can only hope to see this species in deep water near the Atlantic continental shelf from August to September, and there is no guaranteeing an encounter with one of these bizarre wanderers. The storm-petrel followed our slick as it ping-ponged off into the distance, disappearing just as quickly it had arrived. Satisfied by my first meeting with this dream bird, I just had to buy a celebratory cap at the end of the trip. I’ve needed a birding hat for a long time, and now that I’ve seen the stylish White-faced Storm-Petrel I feel worthy of adorning my head with its likeness.

The little storm-petrels aren’t the only birds that make their livings out on the high seas. Great and Cory’s Shearwaters were drawn to the scent of chum, and a few Audubon’s Shearwaters were spotted gliding by in the distance. I would’ve liked a closer look at the smaller black-and-white birds, but I saw enough field marks on my own to separate this latest lifer from its similar cousin the Manx Shearwater. Most of the larger birds we saw were far off on the horizon line, tracing curved paths over the swells.

While following the flight of a Great Shearwater, we noticed another bird heading towards our position. Its plumage looked broadly similar, with a dark-topped head and a white band across the base of the tail, but the way it moved put even the talented shearwater to shame. Several other birders recognized its wheeling, roller coaster flight path from afar, loudly calling out its identity as a Black-capped Petrel. Due to the cooler sea temperatures off New York compared to recent years, I wasn’t confident that we would see this rare southern soarer on our outing. We were treated to incredible views as the bird arced up above the ship, expertly riding the wind as it circled to inspect our offering of chum. Although it never stopped for a bite to eat, several more Black-capped Petrels looped around us multiple times. After a few hours of drifting and chumming, we finally headed back to the border of the shelf.

We put out a new chum slick when we reached the beautiful blue water where the continental seabed drops off. The three main storm-petrels, some shearwaters, and another Black-capped Petrel all visited us one last time before turned the boat around and charted a course for home.

I usually do my best to stay awake throughout any given pelagic trip. Nobody wants to be the unlucky birder who sleeps through an unexpected rarity encounter. Even so, my exhaustion was starting to catch up with me, and the top deck was once again drenched by spray from the oncoming waves. I decided that there was no harm in taking a nap while we passed through the relatively deserted inshore waters. The only bird of note prior to my siesta was a jaeger too distant to identify to species, and catching a few hours of rest during the afternoon certainly did my body good. After I awakened, I found that the calmer seas resulted in an inhabitable upper level. We passed a pair of flyby shorebirds shortly after I emerged, and photos revealed that they were Red-necked Phalaropes. I was offered a brew during the final leg of the trip, and I kicked back to chat with my friends and soak up the setting sun. As we approached New York City, I saw my first and only cetacean of the day: a Humpback Whale that surfaced directly in front of the Manhattan skyline.

We returned to the dock after nearly 24 hours at sea. I was completely wiped, but the full day on the water was well-worth the long hours and challenges of birding by boat. With multiple new life birds, a few more reunions, and plenty of good times with good friends, the 2017 August Paulagic was a roaring success. Special thanks to Paul, Anita, Sean, and the rest of the crew that helped bring the trip together in the face of scheduling adversity! I can’t wait for my next journey to the continental shelf in search of the species that call those deep waters home. You never know what you’ll find when you’re that far from land. Until then, I will dream of White-faced Storm-Petrels bouncing from wave to wave on their journey across the globe.

Year List Update, August 27 – 361 Species (+ Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, Cory’s Shearwater, White-faced Storm-Petrel, Audubon’s Shearwater, Great Shearwater, Black-capped Petrel, Red-necked Phalarope)

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I love impromptu adventures, and I welcome the opportunity to just head out and go somewhere with only a rough sketch of a plan and enjoy the ride. Miriam and I have had pretty successful summer on the exploration front, and we’ve done plenty of winging it along the way. On Saturday, we decided to make a short-range day trip to New Jersey. Our lack of a detailed itinerary provided us with a lot of freedom, but such expeditions can have their drawbacks. We trusted the GPS too much and got stuck in Manhattan thanks to a bike race blocking off our crosstown route, and when we arrived at Richard W. DeKorte Park it was way too hot for wildlife and wildlife watchers alike. After improvising our way into a nearby bar to pass the time, we returned to DeKorte and found increased activity levels. I managed to locate a Least Bittern, our primary target, in the cooler late afternoon hours.

My favorite excuse for a spur-of-the-moment outing is a rare bird chase. When I first heard news of a Common Shelduck reported in New Hampshire, however, I was somewhat skeptical. Waterfowl always receive extra scrutiny as potential vagrants due to their prevalence in private collections of exotics. As more knowledgeable individuals weighed in on the discovery, it became apparent that there was actually a pretty strong case for a wild origin with this individual. The shelduck population has grown dramatically in Iceland in the past few years, and August is prime time for dispersal in juveniles and pre-molt adults. The old stigma of automatic dismissal for this species, which previously plagued the European geese, seems to be gradually fading in the face of new, promising records from the northeastern provinces and states at the proper times of year. They are certainly strong flyers capable of migrating long distances. The support for a pattern of natural vagrancy in Common Shelducks, similar to that of Barnacle and Pink-footed Geese, Tufted Ducks, and Eurasian Wigeons, is slowly gaining ground. The New Hampshire bird lacks any obvious signs of captivity, the timing checks out, and a local waterfowl breeder confirmed that they don’t even own any shelducks to lose. It’s up to the records committees in the end, but it definitely can’t be discounted out of hand. I was curious.

A Monday night conversation about “how cool it would be” to go looking for the bizarre bird quickly solidified into a real opportunity. Miriam met me before sunrise on Tuesday morning, and we set out for New England. We managed to avoid hitting any serious traffic on the way up, and we reached the shelduck stakeout site south of Odiorne Point State Park around 10 AM. Our quarry wasn’t visible at first, but we soon spotted it feeding in the pond furthest back from the road. I noticed that the distant duck employed an interesting foraging style that reminded me of an avocet or flamingo, wading in muddy water and sweeping its bill back and forth to sift for small invertebrates.

The shelduck eventually wandered out of sight behind some vegetation, only to reappear in flight headed our way a moment later. We quickly raised our cameras and snapped a series of shots as it flapped past. It hooked south before reaching the road, touching down in a larger, closer pool.

I led the way down the road to get a better view of the presumed long-distance traveler. The shelduck was warily regarding the passersby who were jogging or walking along the shoulder, so we made sure to move slowly and deliberately and avoid approaching too closely. We enjoyed vastly improved looks at the strange goose-duck from this vantage point, watching as it switched to floating, shoveler-like straining for food. After a few minutes, our photoshoot was cut short when our subject took off and circled back to the original pool. We took its departure as a cue to take our leave, both satisfied with our encounter with an unusual and fascinating new bird. Maybe this record will even get accepted!

We continued north to Odiorne Park, exploring the rocky shoreline and watching the gulls, cormorants, and eiders feeding in the shallows. The day was starting to heat up, and we really wanted to go for a swim. We hadn’t thought to bring bathing suits, but there was no reason we couldn’t go pick some up. Winging it!

I took Miriam on a short driving tour of Portsmouth, a lovely town on the southern side of the New Hampshire/Maine border. Those who wish to visit the Isles of Shoals, including Cornell’s Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore Island, typically due so through this port. It’s been 6 years since I last saw these streets, and it was nice to see some familiar sights. We took the bridge to Kittery, Maine and settled in for lunch at Warren’s Lobster House. I was glad to be back in my former summer home even though I only put my toe across the state line for the duration of a meal. After filling our bellies with delicious seafood and refreshing drinks, we found a shop where we could purchase some swimwear. Upon returning to Odiorne, we found that the shifting tides had made the water more difficult to access and carried mats of floating seaweed to the nearshore areas. On the other hand, they had also exposed several tidepools. We traded a swim session for wading and exploring the intertidal zone for critters. At least I got a chance to dunk my head.

We had another big decision to make for our trip itinerary: to chase or not to chase. The shelduck wasn’t the only visiting bird making New England feel like Old England. Birders at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Cape Cod had discovered a Little Stint and a Bar-tailed Godwit, both shorebirds from across the pond. The godwit was not accessible without a boat, but the stint was readily visible on shore near public parking at Morris Island. We tossed around the idea of extending our trip over the course of the day, and in the end we opted to just go for it. We raced the sunset towards Cape Cod, valiantly fighting through Boston rush hour traffic and escaping via a convenient HOV lane. We finally reached Chatham with just an hour of light to spare.

Fortunately, the tide cycle lined up perfectly with our arrival. The exposed sand was much easier to navigate than the rock walls lining the beach, and we made it out to the shorebird flats in good time. I set about scanning for the Little Stint, but unfortunately I never managed to pick it out. There were some birds that briefly gave me pause, but with the limited lighting and time I simply couldn’t make the miracle happen. I later learned that a dozen plus birders had failed to find the stint on the earlier low tide that day, so perhaps it simply wasn’t there to be seen. The cloud-covered sunset at the Cape was still an exceedingly pleasant way to end the day. We saw plenty of other shorebirds, flocks of egrets and terns, and scuttling hordes of fiddler crabs filtering the mud for food. Miriam and I walked back out the beach as the lights went out, heading into town for dinner.

Our on-the-fly planning meant that we had a long drive back to Long Island in the dark, and the late night storm that found us en route certainly made things interesting. When we finally made it back in one piece, we settled into bed for a hard-earned night’s sleep. The shelduck, the food, and the sights along the way were absolutely worth the effort we put into our adventure. I always appreciate a successful journey, no matter how far I travel and how late I get home!

Year List Update, August 22 – 352 Species (+ Common Shelduck)

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An Act of Godwit

I was a little slow to start shorebirding in earnest this year, perhaps because seeking out southbound migrants meant admitting that the seasons are changing. On one hand, I welcome the end of the doldrums and eagerly anticipate the excitement of fall migration, but I’m not quite ready to be done with summer yet. I’m too busy celebrating the completion of grad school to go back to work! I couldn’t ignore the steady march of time forever, though, and I have certainly made the most of my freedom since classes ended in late June. Nocturnal flight calls overhead and tantalizing reports from the field finally convinced me to get off my ass and get back out there. More adventures await, and school’s not in session yet!

My first trip to Jamaica Bay this August left a lot to be desired. The mosquitoes were hungrier and more numerous than I’ve ever encountered at this site. Miriam and I got devoured, and to add to our woes we found few birds of interest at Big John’s Pond and the nearby East Pond overlook. A single Solitary Sandpiper was our sole consolation prize. We might have had more luck if we walked out on the shoreline at the south end, but the biting insects were too fierce and forced us to retreat. With time to kill after our abbreviated visit, we headed to Oceanside for a relaxing, easy stroll on the boardwalk. Fledglings were the stars of the show, with young Barn Swallows, Forster’s Terns, and Osprey providing great views. A few yellowlegs, dowitchers, and peeps served as a teaser for the rapidly approaching peak season.

Brendan discovered some cool birds at the northern ponds of Hempstead Lake State Park, a nice surprise given the habitat’s small size, inland location, and proximity to the Southern State Parkway. We made a quick trip at sunset and managed to pick out Miriam’s lifer Western Sandpiper. The fire of shorebirding excitement was reignited, and word of an American Avocet at Jamaica Bay further fanned the flames. After taking Gracie on a trip to Connecticut for a veterinary visit the following day, I received word that the avocet was still present at the northern end of the East Pond. It was time to boot up.

We arrived to find the water level at the East Pond a bit higher than I’d expected or hoped for, but it still proved to be passable in mid-calf waders. I gave Miriam a quick practical course in managing the mud, highlighting the importance of testing each foothold and remembering to pull a mired boot out heel-to-toe to avoid losing it altogether. Many a birder has sacrificed their footwear to the treacherous muck of Jamaica Bay, and coming into direct contact with the filth is best avoided. Once she got the hang of the technique, my fearless companion actually seemed to enjoy the challenge of slogging through the slime. We teamed up with Tripper for the majority of our visit, and we encountered a decent diversity of species as we worked our way south along the shoreline. Sightings included Stilt Sandpipers, a Red Knot, plenty of peeps, and some American Oystercatchers.

Tom, Gail, and Menachem greeted us at Sanderling Point, informing us that a Buff-breasted Sandpiper had just flown out of sight. They gave us some advice on how to safely reach the avocet on the other side of Dead Man’s Cove, one of the stickiest and sloppiest sections of the pond. We managed to make it across in one piece, and our prize was well-worth the effort. Avocets are classy, striking birds, and they certainly stand out among their smaller, difficult-to-distinguish brethren. This is Miriam’s first fall shorebirding season, and she expressed amazement at the similitude of the many species present. There’s no denying that these guys can be tricky!

The beauty of the East Pond is that many of the birds will forage and loaf at close range, allowing ample opportunity for study. One friendly Lesser Yellowlegs came strutting past us in perfect light, leaving a meandering trail of tracks in its wake. Even though many types of shorebirds look alike, familiarizing oneself with the subtle variations helps you to pick out the different birds in a flock by impression. White-rumped and Pectoral Sandpipers feeding among the Semipalmateds and Leasts were welcome additions to the day’s total. We left the refuge behind as sunset drew near, heading home to hose down our boots and gear.

Friday was a quiet, lazy day, largely due to periodic storms sweeping through the area. With no evening plans, I was beginning to get a case of cabin fever. Fortunately, I happened to check my email just a few minutes after a report came in from Doug and Sean announcing that they’d found a Hudsonian Godwit. This bird is tricky to track down, breeding in the remote Arctic and wintering in southern South America. Most individuals fly nonstop from Ontario across the Atlantic in the fall, completely skipping the East Coast. Although they occasionally stop in this region due to weather or fuel requirements, they don’t tend to linger long. I’ve missed connecting with Hudwits a time or two during my career, most notably when I took a drive from Ithaca to Montezuma with Ben and Brendan only to strike out back in 2015. This bird was on track to fill the void left by the Little Gull and become my next major nemesis, but I wasn’t about to let that happen. Less than 10 minutes after the initial message hit the listserv, I was out the door and on my way.

I made good time on the Belt Parkway, but when I reached the northern parking lot on Cross Bay Boulevard the sky was threatening more rain. I elected to leave my camera behind, grabbing my scope and binoculars as I dashed off towards the East Pond as fast as my boots could carry me. I sloshed my way out to Sanderling Point, passing Tripper on his way out, and the news was good. Sure enough, amongst the dozing Black-bellied Plovers I spied a larger, longer-billed bird preening in the shallows. Bingo. I was able to digiscope a few shots of my target as the light gradually faded and thunder rumbled in the distance.

After watching the Hudsonian feed for a few minutes, I started back towards my car. Sudden shrieks caused me to wheel around: a Peregrine Falcon had scared the flocks into flight. As the raptor continued south to chase the gulls, I picked out the godwit in flight by its black-and-white tail and distinctive proportions. When the shorebirds settled back down to rest, I resumed my journey out of the refuge. The first drops of rain fell as I navigated the muddy water, and lightning flashes grew closer and closer. The storm reached Jamaica Bay just as I reached my car. My successful hunt was a delightful outing, and if I hadn’t seen the report right away I may have missed the bird entirely due to timing and the weather. There but for the grace of godwit go I.

Year List Update, August 18 – 351 Species (+ Solitary Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Hudsonian Godwit)

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Grand Teton Slam

After our morning enjoying the wildlife and water features of Yellowstone, we turned our sights south and headed towards Grand Teton National Park. Although the older, larger park typically gets more recognition, Teton is still an absolutely wonderful place to visit. As part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it is home to many of the same animals and plants you can find to the north. In addition, the vistas along the Snake River and various lake shores are often even more stunning than the landscapes in Yellowstone. Hooking east from the Jackson Lake Junction, we drove along the Oxbow Bend and exited the park. We set up camp at Fireside RV Park a short distance from the gates at Moran Junction, and this became our base of operations for the next few days. It was a pretty nice place to stay, thanks to both the proximity to the park and the wildlife inhabiting the area. Miriam and I spotted a Long-tailed Weasel, and groups of swallows, bluebirds, blackbirds, and siskins were seen foraging nearby. There was even a family of Trumpeter Swans down the road that we passed on our way in and out each day.

For our first evening, we took a slow ride through the Grand Teton driving loop. Of all the charismatic large mammals inhabiting the region, the Moose was our only glaring miss so far. Knowing that these giant deer are most active at dawn and dusk, we scanned thoroughly as we rolled past willows and forests along the riverbanks. Although our twilight drive provided us with some lovely photo opps and no shortage of wildlife encounters, we failed to locate our primary target before turning in for the night.

We slept in a bit the following day, but we still made a morning search run before digging into breakfast. Once again, no Moose. Mom and Dad decided that we should head into Jackson for the day, so we began a leisurely journey south once again. Large crowds parked on the roadside at Jackson Lake Junction gave us pause, and we were treated to distant views of a mother Grizzly standing up to survey the area. A stop at the Snake River Overlook proved to be worthwhile, turning up Townsend’s Solitaires, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, “Audubon’s” Warblers, and more, most of them tending to newly-fledged young. I also spotted a mouse hiding under the wheels of a vehicle that was about to pull out, so I alerted the drivers and directed them away from the tiny rodent. It seemed intent on rushing towards the nearest tires to hide, so hopefully my efforts to protect it weren’t just prolonging the inevitable.

We continued along towards Antelope Flats, taking a dirt road south from Mormon Row in search of Greater Sage-Grouse and other sagebrush specialties. Miriam checked off Western Meadowlark and picked out a Sage Thrasher, which gave better views than my lifer from the Lamar Valley a few days ago. At midday we reached the Gros Ventre River, the boundary between Grand Teton National Park and the National Elk Refuge. Pausing at a roadside pullover, Dad lifted his binoculars and scanned the far river bank.

“…there’s a Moose!…and it’s a bull!”

There’s something special about finding your own wildlife to watch. Critter-based traffic jams are very common in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton, so Dad was especially pleased to get credit for our surprise Moose. His discovery created a jam of its own, with over a dozen passersby pulling over to watch the huge bull browsing on the willows. I’ve seen my share of Alces alces in my day, but this was easily the biggest, burliest beast I’ve been lucky enough to meet. It’s been far too many years since I’ve actually seen a Moose despite summers working in Alaska and Maine, even though I did hear an individual crashing through the woods outside the Project Puffin headquarters in 2014. This was a reintroduction that was long overdue, and Miriam was especially happy to make his acquaintance. We did a little bit of birding on our side of the river before loading up and resuming our journey.

It started to rain as we approached the National Museum of Wildlife Art, which conveniently offered some indoor entertainment when we needed it most. Dad pointed out hummingbird feeders near the entrance, and I was able to find a smaller, shorter-tailed female among several Broad-tailed Hummingbirds bellying up to the bar. This was a long-awaited lifer that a few of my family members had over me: the Calliope Hummingbird. Leaving the hummers and the watchful eyes of the trees, we headed inside to check out the artwork.

The museum was really quite impressive. In addition to pieces by local artists and older paintings, they had an exhibition on the diversity of hummingbirds as well as a wing dedicated to Joel Sartore’s “photo ark” project. I also enjoyed the statues outside, which included extinct North American birds alongside the quintessential megafauna of the Rocky Mountains. It was definitely worth a visit, and by the time we were ready to leave the rain was starting to let up.

Down in Jackson, Miriam and I split off from my folks for a little while. Although she was enduring pain brought on by overactive wisdom teeth, she was still eager to explore the area for wildlife. As we drove into town, she’d spotted a Yellow-headed Blackbird along the road. Hoping for a closer look, she led me down the street towards the Flat Creek Marsh. We passed a couple of Black-billed Magpies on our way out of town, though most of them were raggedy, short-tailed juveniles that didn’t look quite as svelte as their dapper parents.

A family of Common Ravens was roving around on the lawn outside the visitor center, putting on quite a show. One of the parents stopped by to cough up a meal, and the youngsters quickly began squabbling over the chunks of meat provided by the adult. Juvenile ravens usually lack the wary tendencies of full-grown birds, but their minds are just as sharp and curious. They strolled right over to Miriam and me, regarding us with bright eyes. When I offered my best raven impression as a greeting, they froze in place at the croaking sound. I swear I could hear the gears spinning in their heads as they tried to figure out what we were up to. “I can see why you like these guys so much,” Miriam admitted. “They’re pretty cool.”

Despite its proximity to both the town and the busy highway, Flat Creek Marsh turned out to be surprisingly lively. We heard a few Soras vocalizing loudly from the reeds at the edge of the lawn, and a snipe that suddenly flushed from underfoot almost gave Miriam a heart attack. A variety of ducks were floating on the pools, and Marsh Wrens bounced from stem to stem. We finally managed to locate some Yellow-heads, listening to their bizarre cries echoing across the marshy landscape.

We reunited with my parents in town to do some shopping, drinking, and eating. We then returned to Antelope Flats to continue our search for sage-grouse, but unfortunately we came up short yet again. I was happy to find my first Brewer’s Sparrows, though, and we appreciated close looks at Pronghorn, Mule Deer, and a Long-tailed Weasel which was slinking through a grate at the entrance to a ranch.

We watched the sun go down behind the Tetons one last time, drinking in the beauty of the sagebrush plains set against the stark peaks in the distance. Simply gorgeous.

We had to drive up through Yellowstone one last time to drop off the rental car in Cody, so we were treated to another day driving around in search of wildlife. Waterbirds were the highlights along the shores of Yellowstone Lake, including a confiding White Pelican, floating flocks of Barrow’s Goldeneyes, and unexpected sightings of Western Grebe and Franklin’s Gull. We waved goodbye to the bison, the geysers, and the wolf watchers as we made our way north to Gardiner, leaving Yellowstone behind…for now.

It’s always difficult to board the plane and leave for home at the end of a successful adventure. Miriam and I treated ourselves to one last hike the morning before we returned to the Bozeman airport, and it was absolutely worth it. We finally got a look at her number one target bird for the trip, the Lazuli Bunting, after hearing one singing outside our window the previous evening. In addition to picking up a few other species, we were treated to breathtaking vantage points from the Joe Brown Trail up Dome Mountain. It was a delightful end to a spectacular vacation.

Farewell for now, Yellowstone! My track record has proven that I can’t stay away for very long, and I think Miriam’s stellar first visit may have established the same need to come back again. I’ll jump at any excuse to experience the magic of America’s first national park. This visit, for what it’s worth, resulted in some new favorite Yellowstone memories! Until next time…

Year List Update, July 28 – 347 Species (+ Trumpeter Swan, Western Meadowlark, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Calliope Hummingbird, Sora, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Western Wood-Pewee, Brewer’s Sparrow, Bullock’s Oriole, Franklin’s Gull, Western Grebe, Lazuli Bunting, Green-tailed Towhee, Rock Wren, Dusky Flycatcher)

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In the Yellowstone

What is summer without an adventurous vacation? After batting around several possible destinations for my travels over break, I took up my parents invitation to meet them out in the Greater Yellowstone Area at the end of July. Miriam had this corner of the world marked on her must-see list for a long time, so she was eager to join me on my journey. We elected to fly out rather than ride in the family RV for the entirety of the journey. Even our layover at the Denver airport provided excitement, with Miriam’s first glimpse of real mountains, including a distant view of Pike’s Peak, and her first lifer of the trip, Western Kingbird. Once we landed in Bozeman, we enjoyed a scenery photoshoot with a Vesper Sparrow singing at the edge of the parking lot. My parents picked us up in a rental car and we began the drive south towards Wyoming. I recognized many of the vistas along the way, especially once we reached the banks of the Yellowstone River.

Before we even entered the park, we were treated to close-up looks at families of Bighorn Sheep and Pronghorn. Its been years since I last observed either of the distinctive ungulates, and these sightings were the first of several welcome reunions with local wildlife.

Once we reached Gardiner, we paused to take some pictures at the famous Roosevelt Arch which serves as the northern gateway to the park. We continued to Mammoth Hot Springs, where I led Miriam out on the trails while Mom and Dad cooked up dinner in the picnic area. We explored the terraces and pools lining the boardwalk, taking note of local birds like Violet-green Swallow, Black-billed Magpie, and Western Tanager. With the sun sinking lower in the sky and our bellies full, we continued south along the Firehole River.

Photo opps and critter sightings were plentiful on the drive between Mammoth and our campsite. The mighty American Bison were the stars of the show, but we also came across a number of Elk grazing along the edges of the riverside pullouts. Miriam was the first to spot a Grizzly Bear, calling out a cub which the rest of us glimpsed disappearing into the trees when we turned back to look. We were treated to a performance by a displaying pair of Sandhill Cranes dancing with one another in the fields adjacent to the road. The concentrations and closeness of animals in Yellowstone, in addition to the great variety of species present, make the park a truly special place.

After stopping by the Old Faithful Geyser Basin at sunset, we headed to our campground at Bridge Bay and settled in for the night. When we awoke, Miriam and I set out to explore the area and look for birds. White-crowned Sparrows and “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warblers were everywhere, and Miriam was delighted when we noted a pair of Red Crossbills passing overhead. We found a Gray Jay and a few Clark’s Nutcrackers poking around the picnic tables in search of breakfast, and after taking in a meal of our own we set out into the park again.

We took the rental car on an extensive driving tour of Yellowstone’s best. Chittenden Bridge, Canyon Village, Artist’s Point on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the Dunraven Pass were among the stops we made as we worked our way north. We added American White Pelican, Swainson’s Hawk, Mountain Bluebird, and more to Miriam’s life list and my year list.

We eventually reached the Lamar Valley, a renowned wildlife viewing site even by the lofty standards of Yellowstone. We kept a sharp eye out for Gray Wolves, which frequently use this region, but couldn’t locate them or their attendant crowds of admirers. I did, however, spot my first new bird of the trip: a briefly-glimpsed Sage Thrasher that flushed to avoid an oncoming adult bison. We could see huge herds of buffalo dotting the landscape, and once we reached Soda Butte we came face to face with a massive group of the majestic megafauna. No matter how many times I see these creatures, I never get tired of them. They are simply superlative, incredible animals.

Where the buffalo roam…

After dinner and before bed, we made a quick trip up to the Hayden Valley. A huge crowd with scopes trained on the forest’s edge told us that we had just missed an evening show from the resident wolf pack. One of the pups, a little black one, briefly bounced back into view before returning to the den, but all we saw was a dark smudge on the screen of a phone that one watcher had attached to his optics. Some of the locals informed us that this family, the Wapiti Lake Pack, was consistently visible from this overlook on a daily basis, so we all agreed that we should return the next day.

After another night in the camper, we awoke to find morning mist shrouding the landscape. We passed a few grazing Elk as we headed north towards the Hayden Valley, and there were several other individuals feeding on the banks of the Yellowstone River when we reached the vantage point where the wolf watchers were already stationed.

Shortly after we settled in at the observation pullover, someone said that they spotted something moving in the fog. While we strained to catch a glimpse, one of the veteran observers raised a hand and urgently hushed the crowd. “They’re howling…” he whispered, reverently. The entire congregation went totally silent, and we listened, awestruck, to the ghostly wails of the Wapiti Lake wolves. I’ve been fortunate enough to see these legendary predators on several occasions, but this was the first time I was able to hear their howling. When the mist faded, the wolves were finally visible as they trotted across the vast plains. We spotted three adults, two males that dispersed from the famous Mollie’s Pack and a female known as 1091, and a yearling individual. The Elk foraging in the valley were very wary of the hunters, giving them a wide berth as they passed by. The yearling seemingly couldn’t resist messing with the potential prey, stalking close to a pair of females and getting them riled up. We spent most of the morning watching the wolves from afar, and it was a morning well-spent.

Wolf Pack, Assemble! (Volume UP)

Mom let us know about a distant Grizzly Bear that she observed from the restroom parking lot, so we peeled ourselves away from the Wapiti Lake Pack to have a look. We continued onward to the Dragon’s Mouth and the Mud Volcano, passing a few roadblock bison along the way. I picked up my first Cassin’s Finches, and we also found Least Chipmunks and both Golden-mantled and Uinta Ground-Squirrels. We revisited the Old Faithful Area for a daylight performance, and we made the Midway Geyser Basin our final stop in Yellowstone for the day. We still had to drive south to Grand Teton before nightfall, but there was no way we were leaving until Miriam got to see the Grand Prismatic Spring. After a lifetime of biology coursework using the colorful image of this spectacular feature for lessons about extremophiles, one might think that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Like most of Yellowstone, however, it does. It absolutely does.

Year List Update, July 24 – 332 Species (+ Western Kingbird, Vesper Sparrow, Brewer’s Blackbird, Black-billed Magpie, Violet-green Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, Western Tanager, Sandhill Crane, White-crowned Sparrow, Clark’s Nutcracker, American White Pelican, California Gull, Swainson’s Hawk, Mountain Bluebird, Sage Thrasher, Cassin’s Finch, Wilson’s Snipe)

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